A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 18: Give My Ears a True Face

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Harriet Harris and Jeff McCarthy in Barrington Stage Company's "Sweeney Todd" - Music Murdered? Photo by Kevin Sprague.
Harriet Harris and Jeff McCarthy in Barrington Stage Company's "Sweeney Todd" - Music Murdered? Photo by Kevin Sprague.

I would like to say something about Barrington Stage’s “Sweeney Todd” and the singing therein, but I feel prevented from doing so mainly because of some wires and gadgets. The amplification in the show was so extreme that most of the ensemble singing was close to distortion. I think some of the singing in the show was quite good, even excellent, but I didn’t really hear it. When one hears only a disembodied voice coming from God knows where, one doesn’t see the face of the singer the same way. Hearing and seeing are not disconnected. There seems to be a plague creeping up on us. Everything on stage must now have a little boost. I think the excellent companies in our county should trust us. Our ears can adjust, and we will see an actual singing face again and be moved. We can listen harder. Our fine actors and singers will connect with their bodies to make the sounds we hear instead of sounds much softer than we hear, the bodies not like singing bodies. Painters like singers as much as dancers because there is a physicality to producing a sound, a real sound in a real space. There is a pathos in it. There we see the effort of the singer and it is a beautiful thing. It is a real thing. I don’t want to relax in the theatre. I want to listen hard. Don’t make it so easy for me. Some of the nonchalance that I sensed in the “Sweeney” performance I saw came from the fact that the actors, even these gifted actors, were having too easy a time of it, and so was I.

I heard exactly what I am looking for on Route 2 a few days ago. I had gone to the Mohawk Trail Concerts to hear a highly regarded young baritone, David McFerrin. In fact young David was ill, and I wish him well. I heard something excellent there. There was a forthright, uncomplicated, really honest young singer, named John Salvi. If I say about John that he is a plain singer, I mean that as a very high compliment. His performance was the polar opposite of a finished professional singing through a hidden head mike. His way of singing was real and straight to the heart, and the sound of his voice in a real space with some real effort behind it was human. The effort of the singer had a sharp human pathos. Is there a better metaphor for striving, striving to sing the unsayable? This is not only a metaphysical thing – it is also a physical thing. John showed this so directly in his brave and tender performance of the famous Pierrot song from Korngold’s “Die Tode Stadt”. This chestnut is a chestnut because of its beauty, and this young baritone sang it without exaggeration and with his entire person. I hope to hear him again soon.

Increasingly, many stage productions in the Berkshires and even some Classical performances at Tanglewood have been severely compromised — actually ruined or invalidated — by amplification. Last year I noted that the Barrington Stage Company is the worst offender in this falsification, which is an injustice as much to the performers as the audience.

In an earlier version of this note I stated my belief that Ms. Blythe used amplification, but apparently I’m wrong in this conclusion, as I have been notified by the BSO Press Office. I’ve praised her work in the opera house many times, and I know her voice is large, but I was not prepared for it to resonate as it did in the Music Shed, and, unlike Layla Claire’s soprano, it did not convey a clear sense of directionality. Such are the tricks of voices and spaces. I apologize to the BSO and to Ms. Blythe.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel


What would Die Meistersinger sound like on a cruise ship?

— The Editor

2 thoughts on “A Singer’s Notes 18: Give My Ears a True Face

  1. amplifying one voice of the two in the mahler would be a scandal if true. now i was there and at the mahler 3 and did grow concerned that ,from my seat, “the abduction” opera in concert would be barely audible. now i don’t know whether to laugh or cry. if the voices will be amped, i’d just as soon listen to a cd.

  2. I almost certainly would not have contemplated this was helpful two or three years ago, yet it’s fascinating how age evolves the way you react to stuff, many thanks for the article it absolutely is pleasing to see something wise here and there instead of the regular rubbish masquerading as blogs and forums at the net. Cheers

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